CULT OF RELICS
The cult of relics developed in the very
earliest years of the Christian religion. See Peter Brown, The Cult
of the Saints in the Early Church (Princeton, 1985). The Christian
attitude, in distinction from the pagan treatment of the dead, characterized
those who “slept in Christ” as members of an extended Christian community.
Burial places were not “outside the walls” of cities, as proscribed in
Roman law, but clustered around, in, and under places of worship.
Places of worship grew up over the sites of significant graves. In
the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine built the basilica of St. Peter
over a cemetery believed to contain the grave of the first pope.
Constantine and his mother St. Helena built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
to enshrine both the place of Christ’s death and his tomb.
The demand to be close to the tangible
remains of heroic Christians, the great confessors and martyrs, especially
in the founding of new churches, encouraged the partition of bodies to
allow the sacred “aura” that facilitated God’s grace to be shared among
a growing community. Churches were founded with relics as their essential
“talisman.” In 396 the French city of Rouen celebrated the arrival
of relics from Rome. Victricius, speaking for the Christian community,
stated: “Give me these temples of saints. . . If a light touch of the hem
of the savior’s garment could cure (reference to Christ healing the woman
with the issue of blood when she touched his robe, described in Luke 8:43-48),
then there is no doubt that these dwelling places of martyrdom (the relics)
carried in our arms, will cure us. . . Let us draw down on us the favor
of the saints. . . Their dwelling is on high, but let us evoke them as
our guests.” (see Christianity and Paganism, 350-750, ed. J. N.
Hillgarth (Philadelphia, 1986), 23
Throughout the entire Middle Ages, the
possession of relics of important saints made sites popular. Veneration
even included significant displacement to visits theses relics. Margery
Kempe’s visits invariable mention relics, even locally, such as the tomb
of St. William of Norwich. They encouraged her wide travels to the
Holy Land and the Holy Sepulchre, Santiago of Compostela, and the tomb
of St. James the Great, or Aachen, among many others. Christians
did not believe that the souls of the saints dwelt in their relics (bones,
clothes they wore, or elements of their martyrdom, such as the stones used
to kill Stephen), but that these things would act as conduits to grace.
They would link the revered intercessor, the favored saint in the face
of God, to his or her faithful on earth. Evocation of the saint was
not only a way of petitioning favor but was a means to emulate the saint’s
virtues of courage, generosity, or resistance to temptation. For
example, Margery Kempe continually evokes Mary Magdalene’s repentance for
her sexual exercise as a model for her own desire to achieve spiritual
Theft of the body of St. Martin.
Martin, the patron saint of Tours died at Candes. His followers contrived
to steal the body. The image shows them passing it out a window for
transportation on the Loire river to the city of Tours where a great pilgrimage
church was built. This type of activity was called a “pious theft”
and its practitioners (as for the removal the body of St. Benedict from
Montecassino in Italy to Fleury on the Loire, France) was an affirmation
of God’s judgment that the original owners were not worthy of the honor.
Martin’s Body removed, detail of
the window of St. Martin, Tours Cathedral, c. 1260. © Raguin/MMK
The Pilgrim's Guide to Saint James of
Compostela written in the 12th century describes the great basilica, now
destroyed, at Tours.
Then on this same road along the
Loire, one should visit the worthy body of the blessed Martin, bishop and
confessor. In truth, he is said to be the noble resuscitator of three
dead persons, and he is said to have restored to desired health, lepers,
the possessed, those who had gone astray in their wits, madmen, and those
possessed by devils, and other sick people. For truly the tomb in
which rests his most sacred mortal clay near the city of Tours gleams with
a profusion of silver and gold and precious stones, and it shines forth
with frequent miracles. Above it an immense and venerable basilica of admirable
workmanship, similar to the church of the blessed James [of Compostela],
was built in his honor; to it the sick come and are cured, the possessed
are delivered, the blind are given sight, the lame are raised up and all
kinds of illnesses are cured and total consolation is given to all who
ask. That is why his splendid renown is spread everywhere by just
praise, to the glory of Christ. His festival is celebrated on the
third day before the Ides of November [11 November]
Verification of the Relics of St. Stephen,
stained glass, Auxerre Cathedral, France, 1230s. © Raguin/MMK. A clerical
authority, invariable a bishop or higher, verifies a relic (here the body
of St. Stephen). The authenticity will be known by the seals of previous
bishops attached to the object, or, as tradition would assert, the occurrence
of miracles in proximity to the relics.
Annie Shaver-Crandell and Paula Gerson,
Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela: A Gazetteer with 580 Illustrations
Harvey Miller Publishers, 1995), 81.
Canterbury Cathedral, detail of window
in Trinity Chapel showing the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket © Raguin/MMK.
The shrine was designed by Elias of Durham sometime between 1205 to1216
(destroyed by Henry VIII). Faced with gold and decorated with jewels,
it stood on an elevated base in the middle of the Trinity Chapel, at the
east end of the church. Pilgrims walked around the shrine, framed
by windows of the miracles of Becket (as Chaucer says), "the holy blissful
martyr, who helps (pilgrims) when they are sick."
St. William's Shrine depicted in the
window of the saint, York Minster. The large window constructed
around 1415 depicts both the virtues of the saint and the many pilgrims
coming to be cured at his shrine.
A woman afflicted with dropsy prays at
St William's shrine.
A man east mortar from St. William's shrine
in the hope of a cure.
A Mother and Child give thanks at St. Williams'
shrine for a recovery.
A man offers a wax model of a leg to St.
William's shrine. This is commonly called an "ex voto." Such
offerings of images of body parts have been documented in Roman practice,
for example at Bath in England.
A prisoner in stocks prays to St. William.
A prisoner offers his fetters as an "ex
voto" at St. William's shrine.
For an extensive catalogue of the reliquaries
in the treasury of the Abbey of St. Denis, see Alison Stones, Images
of Medieval Art and Architecture.